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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

The Emancipation Proclamation

Jun 10th, 2013

2. What factor do you think proved the most significant in the formulation of the Emancipation Proclamation: The evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s personal beliefs? The actions of slaves themselves? The ad hoc policies worked out by local Union commanders like Butler and Frémont that forced the administration to confront the status of enslaved African Americans? Northern public opinion? The course of the war through the summer of 1862? Or, do you regard some other factor not listed above as the primary motivation behind the proclamation?

KM: The most immediate catalyst for Lincoln’s decision to issue a proclamation of emancipation was the failure of the Peninsula campaign. Once it became clear in early July 1862 that McClellan’s push for a decisive victory in Virginia had come to nothing, Lincoln looked for other ways of prosecuting the war. He would remove McClellan after the fall’s midterm elections. In the meantime, faced with a significant military defeat, Lincoln came around to the position that abolitionists had long held: the war could not be won without a direct attack on slavery. A policy of liberation would better enable Union forces to mobilize southern African Americans to their side and, at the same time, help deprive the Confederacy of the coerced labor of its enslaved population. It was Lincoln’s determination to find a winning military strategy that pushed him to decide, in late July 1862, to issue a proclamation of emancipation.

JO: In one sense, the answer to this question is deceptively simple. The Second Confiscation Act required a presidential proclamation specifying the areas in rebellion and empowering the president to emancipate the slaves of all rebels in those areas. There was never any question that Lincoln would issue such proclamation. The only question was when. But I think you’re asking something else. You’re asking who the primary agents of emancipation were, and the only reasonable answer to that question is: “All of the above.” Why insist on a mono-causal explanation for emancipation? Lincoln was indispensible; so were Union soldiers; so were slaves; so were congressional Republicans. They were all “agents” of emancipation.

MS: We need to think of emancipation as a process that involved many historical actors rather than a singular event made possible by the stroke of a pen. Like all important historical events, emancipation was a multi-causal phenomenon. It is of course more difficult to assign an order of importance to all the factors you list, because during different times in the war, distinct forces assumed significance. However, the individuals who set in motion the process of emancipation during the Civil War were the slaves who fled to Union army lines in large numbers, creating a logistical problem for the army (and a legal one for the Lincoln administration), and forcing Gen. Benjamin Butler to come up with his “contraband” policy. I argue in my forthcoming book on abolition that the roots of this flight lay among fugitive slaves before the war and that sectional controversies over fugitive slave rendition contributed significantly to its onset. Though in his first inaugural address Lincoln promised to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law, Congress eventually repealed it. This change in Union policy showcases how the slaves themselves helped make the war for the Union into a war against slavery. Steven Hahn calls the flight of slaves to the Union army the largest unknown slave rebellion in American history. In fact, if slaves fleeing for freedom had not seized the initiative, the process of emancipation during the Civil War would not have unfolded precisely in the manner that it did.

KM: Looking for one single “factor” that influenced Lincoln’s decision to issue the proclamation prevents us from seeing the broader set of forces that brought the president to that point and that shaped the course of emancipation, both before and after January 1, 1863. Emancipation was, in fact, a process. Slavery began to crumble in the earliest days of the war as slaveowners departed for service in the Confederacy and slaves themselves sought freedom within Union lines. As Ira Berlin explained in a terrific 1997 essay (which is rarely cited in recent literature on this topic), escaping slaves—by their very presence—demanded that Union soldiers weigh in on the freighted issue of slavery. The fugitives showed doubting Union officials that they could be crucial sources of information and manpower, and as the war dragged on, their service became increasingly indispensible. As Glenn Brasher demonstrates in The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation, Lincoln decided to issue the proclamation amid these complex and consequential dynamics.

MS: Yes, as Kate points out it is important to uncover the broad historical context of emancipation. I would add two more factors in the coming of emancipation to those mentioned in your question. One is the call for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and repudiation of colonization by abolitionists black and white. I would disagree a bit with Jim here. While some abolitionists conceded that the federal government could not interfere constitutionally with slavery in the southern states, most still called for the immediate and complete abolition of southern slavery. Two, there were international forces and diplomatic pressure, the demise of the “second serfdom” in Russia and Eastern Europe, which like modern racial slavery was born with the expansion of early capitalism, and the abolitionist examples of western European countries, starting with Britain. By making emancipation a war aim, the Lincoln administration nipped in the bud all talk of recognition of the Confederacy by these nations.

JO: Your question also assumes that the Emancipation Proclamation was the beginning, middle, and end of wartime antislavery policy. In fact, the federal government had been freeing slaves for more than a year by the time Lincoln issued the proclamation, and within a year after he issued it Republicans realized that it was not enough to destroy slavery completely.

KM: That’s right, and what we’re seeing in recent (and forthcoming) scholarship is more emphasis on the roles of Congress, the armed forces, the abolitionist movement, and, of course, slaves themselves in the process of emancipation. New lines of inquiry tend to represent Lincoln as one among many actors responsible for emancipation and tend to see emancipation not as a single magical moment but a long and contested process. This is not to say that historians now see Lincoln as unimportant. To the contrary, they continue to be fascinated by how he made decisions and to parse the factors that brought him to the Emancipation Proclamation and, ultimately, to tentative support for equal political rights for African Americans. But the array of actors has expanded dramatically in recent years.

LM: Lincoln was a thoughtful, cautious person, and it took time for him to become persuaded that he could apply the doctrine of military necessity to emancipation and that no matter how hard he tried the border states would not move against slavery. He was always antislavery, that didn’t change. But not until July 1862 did he accept the idea that he could act under his presidential war powers, that if he acted he would not lose the border states, and that failure to act would only strengthen the Confederates who were making use of the slave population to help sustain their cause. He also came to see that he had been mistaken in his hopes that unionists, in at least some of the rebel states, would exert themselves to end the rebellion and that McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula would extend the war—sterner measures would be required for the Union to prevail. These beliefs, along with other shifts in attitude that emerged in the criti- cal hundred days between the preliminary and final proclamations, led to emancipation and made the final decree even stronger.

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